21 January 2010

Why Haiti?

I've been thinking about the reasons disasters seems to cluster more in some places than in others. Clearly, I'm not the only one who's been thinking about this--it didn't take long for Pat Robertson to weigh in. (Responses have ranged from "idiotic" to "what do you expect from him?" to a critical "qualified defense.") Last Sunday, on a visit to Kazakhstan, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill gave his own analysis:
Haiti's tragedy has stirred the whole world. It's an ill-fated country. As a French colony, Haiti had prisons where people were sent from France to serve life sentences. It was a terrible corner of the world. Then the country freed itself from colonial rule, but, unfortunately, unlike its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, Haiti was unable to establish a normal life and get on the sort of development path that could lead people to prosperity. I have been on this island, shared by two countries. These countries--the Dominican Republic and Haiti--seem like two different worlds. One part of the island flourishes, the other is dominated by crime and political instability.
And now the serious problems of this side of the island are compounded many times by a catastrophic earthquake. We see the depths of human suffering right on our TV screens.
Kazakhstan, like other countries, knows very well what an earthquake is like. When serious natural disasters happen, usually people get organized, start helping each other, and set the stage to receive external aid. But in Haiti, we are seeing the opposite: people die from hunger, thirst, disease, and the hands of criminals; you can can imagine what kind of hell Haiti's residents are in. 
The human tragedy of Haiti's devastating earthquake unfolds against a background of poverty, hunger, crime, drugs, corruption, all of which have many causes: historical, economic, political, social, climatic, and, not least, the role of personality in history. But we must not forget that in fact at the heart of many modern social problems--from drug abuse and crime to environmental pollution--is the condition of the human spirit. 
God saw fit to create us with a sense of morality, which makes itself known to us as the voice of conscience. It is by this sense, more than by anything else, that humans differentiate themselves from animals. After all, animals also display mental capacity. When we observe dogs, we can be amazed by their intelligence, their intelligence, their diplomacy, their cunning. 
However, in addition to instincts and intelligence, human nature has a moral sense. This is a very important human feature that distinguishes us from the other living creatures of our world. From this very source--the heart of human nature, the inner recesses of the soul--everything is revealed; as Scripture says, from the human heart come evil thoughts (Mark 7, 21). And if we turn those evil thoughts into evil deeds, the actions are secondary, they're the outcome--whether we're talking about politics, or economics; whether we mindlessly waste the natural resources that God gave us, and pollute our environment, or create unjust relationships, or cause famine, social upheaval and drug use....
Is this a subtler version of Robertson, as some charge? I've tried to provide a sufficiently long excerpt here for you to come to your own conclusions.

The first things that came to me when I heard Pat Robertson quoted on Haiti being "cursed" were, almost simultaneously, these thoughts:
  • What kind of a God would visit unrelenting punishment on generations because of the spiritual expressions, however heterodox, of a specific few rebels?
  • And what about the "curse" of conspiring to enslave, and keep enslaved, a whole people?
  • On the other hand, what if that pattern of slavery and cruelty did in fact create a zone where a spirit of oppression rules and must be explicitly dethroned?
That last thought reminded me of two experiences, which I've probably mentioned before. The first was a visit I made to a Quaker ministry site in Jamaica that has been troubled for decades by poor management and corruption. My colleague Vince asked one of the local staffers, "What was here before this was a Friends ministry?" The answer: "A plantation. And that's how we're still treated."

More recently, Mike Berry told us about how his church and other Annapolis churches confronted that city's history of involvement in the slave trade and reached for reconciliation between descendants of slaves and slavers, with remarkable results for the community.

Robertson's remarks have provided a lot of visibility for online material on Haitian history. Here are a couple of examples: Spencer Dew, "Is the Devil a Black Man?"; Jean R. Gelin, "God, Satan, and the Birth of Haiti," part one, part two, part three.

My fantasy vacation is a Caribbean cruise, on the kind of small passenger ship that my grandfather Knut Maurer sailed into the Caribbean many times. 

(Photo at right: MS Meteor, his last command.) 

I imagine good food, good conversations, the gentle roll of the ship, and many hours of uninterrupted reading. 

What if this delicious (and not cheap) escapist vacation coincided with, say, a terrible earthquake? That's just what happened to the MS Independence of the Seas, which docked in Haiti after a spirited internal debate among cruise line management. This Guardian article and this Cruise Critic newsletter outline some of the dilemmas.

I sympathize with those voting to have cruises continue visiting the country, despite its devastation. Among my reasons--there are local people who rely on ship traffic for income; a crisis is not the time to tinker with national tourism policy, as important as that is; and, most of all, buying passage on a cruise, even a fantasy cruise, cannot and does not guarantee immunity from reality.

Whether it's a fire at sea or a disaster on land, a time may come when there's a higher priority than escapism: namely, to witness, to care, to help, to be real. Some of those cruise passengers who are visiting Haiti, even points far from the epicenter, will never forget this moment of realism. I am sure that at least some of them are now part of the worldwide web of care mobilizing around Haiti.

Among the many helpful Haiti-related posts, I particularly appreciated these: "Don't choose a charity ... based on administration costs." (When I worked with Right Sharing of World Resources, and we were seeking partners to work with in India, I learned how precious competent administration can be.) And "posts and articles written by aid workers." Christianity Today's special subsite on Haiti is here.

Other links:
BBC News: "How did Quakers conquer the British sweet shop?" (Thanks, Stuart Willcuts.)
Haaretz: "Israel withholding NGO employees' work permits." (Thanks to Nino Brodin.)
Ken Haase at sBooks: "What should an e-Book cost?"
Joe Volk provides some welcome sanity after the Massachusetts by-election.
American Constitution Society blog: "Conservatives joining death penalty foes."
First Friends Richmond, Indiana, USA, marks its bicentennial with a forum on the future of Friends. (We were members here for about eighteen years.)
openDemocracy: "In memoriam Nastya and Stas."


forrest said...

What that little country is most cursed by-- is domination by the United States. It's a poor country because our corporations get to set the wages and working conditions for their major product, what kind of government they'll let our government allow there (and what kind of governments our government has actively promoted there), what kind of unmitigated poverty and corruption results from collaboration between their elites and ours. & therefore, what kind of cheap, collapsible buildings they had ready to fall on them, what kind of "aid" was allowed to reach them, how much delayed by fear and ideology.

So if there's some occult Evil at work in Haiti, that needs to be named and unmasked, it lives in the US.

All that said, I too am often bewildered by how much sheer Wrath gets visited on the peoples of some unlucky regions, seemingly no more wicked than those in this country benefiting from their misery. "I fear for my country, when I remember that God is just."

kevin roberts said...

Hard to say what the cleric meant. It sounds like he is asserting that Haiti suffers from a moral crime, but unless he specifies all that I can come up with is that he's too vague to understand. Perhaps in the context of other remarks his speech would be more coherent.

He would make a fine Quaker, though. Lots of words, little said.

oops, sorry

Johan Maurer said...

There are clusters of death and disaster in the world, and also clusters of ignorance, evil, naivete, and opportunity, often in deadly mixtures. The evil that afflicts Haiti is in many human hearts--some would say potentially in all human hearts--but the factors that magnify that evil, rather than mitigate it, are not evenly spread out on the planet.

Some of that deadly ignorance, unfortunately, is clustered right in the USA--even among people who are personally generous and caring. Americans have an amazing record of private philanthropy (even though our official foreign aid is proportionally way behind some other countries'). But we also often stay ignorant, perhaps even prefer to stay ignorant about how our public policies and corporate activities actually sabotage that generosity.

It is not necessary to demonize the whole USA. The average American is no more evil than the average Haitian, even though our collective ignorance has devastating effects on millions. And aside from that, if we adopt that kind of rhetoric, we will have no chance to open people's eyes to the personal and national transformations we want.

Anonymous said...

I hope I am inaccurate in my interpretation of Johan’s response to Forrest’s comment. I don’t think that the factors that are implied to “magnify evil” in Haiti are well understood. The historical issues connected with Haiti’s current situation are best described in an article by Professor H. Beckles in the Daily Gleaner (Jamaica) (Sunday January 24, 2010).
After Haiti’s independence in 1804 the nation was “declared an illegal pariah state” and was shunned and prevented from participation in the world economy. This was the catalyst for Haiti’s current economic condition, as in 1825 bankrupt Haitian citizens were forced to pay compensation to the French government for their own emancipation. Haiti paid the “last installment” in 1922. Other first world nations also assisted France in collecting “compensation” from Haiti during the 20th century.

Concerning the Johan’s reference to the Quaker ministry site in Jamaica, “troubled for decades by poor management and corruption”, I am curious about where in Jamaica that might have been. This reference to Jamaica seems to disregard the pervasive corruption in other first world countries. Is corruption peculiar to third world and developing countries? Has the first world no corruption?

Johan Maurer said...

The location in Jamaica was Highgate. And I grew up in Cook County, Illinois--we certainly knew what corruption was!

Anonymous said...

Am I to assume from the rhetoric of your response to Forrest’s comment that “the correct deadly mixture” of supposedly innate “evil, ignorance, etc” was not quite as potent in your native Cook County and other parts of the ‘developed’ world as it was in Haiti? Furthermore, is poverty and adversity the necessary precursor for evil? Germany was one of the most financially prosperous nations in the world when the holocaust occurred.

We need to be careful about the inferences we make about how innate certain “personality” characteristics are with regard to persons from specific Geographical and cultural regions. Such inferences form the foundation for racism.

There were certain historical determinants of Haiti’s present economic condition. These are what myself and Forrest are referring to

kevin roberts said...

Anonymous, my friend, so far nobody in this conversation has been playing the race card except you, as you pick apart Johan's quite even-handed replies looking for trouble.

Haiti has long been an economic basket case, as you point out. And it has a long history of death, disaster, ignorance, evil, naivete, and opportunity, from the slave trade and plantation economy to Papa Doc, Baby Doc, and the Tonton Macoutes. Most Haitians are black.

Cook County has a long history of political and economic corruption, and was the birthplace of the savage mid-American version of violent organized crime. Most of those folks were white.

Evil is color neutral, but succeeds better in places where economic, social, and political dysfunction disarm the populace, make it vulnerable, and provide ways for evil to prosper.

Johans original post was an examination of whether economic and historical issues created a zone vulnerable to evil, not skin color.

kevin roberts said...

I suppose I should also point out that while 1930's and 1940's Germany was white and more or less prosperous, the Nazi party's rise to power was built in the 1920's by blaming targeted races for the destroyed German culture and economy of the Weimar Republic.

It was the economic nightmare of hungry, poor, and hopeless 1920's Germany that made the Nazi Party a viable alternative.


Anonymous said...

You say that evil “succeeds better in places where economic, social, and political dysfunction disarm the populace”. Where is there proof of this in the Quaker ministry site in Highgate Jamaica, the example which Johan has used to support his argument.

Too often when people defend themselves against racially motivated attacks they are accused of pulling the race card. Racism and paternalism are sometimes too subtle to recognize by those who are ignorant regarding the areas they seek to demonize and speak with such authority about.

Do you even know anything about Highgate (St. Mary, Jamaica.)? Where does Johan get his information regarding Highgate from. I hope the due process of ethics have been observed in this regard.

kevin roberts said...

Anonymous, the best I can suggest for you is to re-read Johan's original post more thoughtfully. Most of your questions were answered there.


Anonymous said...

You should read the following articles on the historical background of Haiti: